Back to the ’80s


Last week, Jeff Gordinier of The New York Times wrote a profile of chef Kevin Sbraga and his new restaurant Juniper Commons. Sbraga told him he had fond memories of dining with his family at the Pub in Pennsauken, N.J. during the 1980s. Being a Jersey boy, he has food memories that are rooted in the Garden State.

Across the river in Philadelphia, a revolution began in the early ’70s, sometimes referred to as the Restaurant Renaissance; however, it was during the ’80s that our city attained international culinary status.

A city-wide event called The Book and the Cook began in ’85. Cookbook authors teamed up with local chefs to create one-of-a-kind lunches and dinners at a set price. I met reporters from around the country, including one woman who came from Hawaii. The event lasted until 2005, but it had a deep resonating impact on our city’s restaurant future. I was honored to write a book called “The Best of the Book and the Cook.”

For me, the 1980s were a diverse time in the restaurant industry. The only Italian fine dining restaurant in the city was La Famiglia, which is still serving classic Italian dishes in a beautiful setting. La Truffe was next door and offered brilliant French cuisine. I still recall the foie gras and glass of Sauterne I enjoyed there many years ago.

Apropos was situated on South Broad Street and featured a mix of Philadelphia/California fare in a somewhat hip space. If one thinks arugula is a 21st-century discovery, think again. I first ate it at Apropos in the ’80s. I met chef Jonathan Waxman there during a Book and the Cook event. He runs one of the finest Italian restaurants in New York City.

La Camargue on Walnut Street in the theater district was another French favorite three decades ago. I enjoyed smoked salmon appetizers followed by sinfully rich roast rack of lamb, spring asparagus and potatoes au gratin with my mentor, Barbara Kafka.

Alouette mixed Thai ingredients with French technique, resulting in intoxicating flavors that were new to me. Southwark, which opened 10 years ago at 701 S. Fourth St., is now located on that site.

Susanna Foo has had a long, rich career in our city. Her delicate touch with Chinese ingredients mixed with a love for French food made her the first and one of the most unique dining destinations in Center City. A Chipotle is located in her former space. I cried when I saw how her beautiful restaurant was torn apart, but good news is coming. Foo is returning to Center City, and I am looking forward to being dazzled again.

Café Nola is also gone. This authentic Creole restaurant opened in ’80. I had never tasted gumbo, jambalaya or New Orleans barbecued shrimp yet alone a beignet before this restaurant changed the face of Philadelphia. Emeril Lagasse prepared a Book and the Cook dinner there and joined us at our table. This was before he became a huge TV personality. He fixed something called peanut butter pie and insisted we take one home. I learned much listening to him. New Orleans and its diverse population are what make Creole the go-to method in Louisiana.

Sampling alligator at The Oyster House was a first, and watching Chef Jacques Pepin during a cooking demonstration was one of the most educational culinary experiences I have ever had.

Sea urchin is nothing new although it is appearing on restaurant menus here and there. The Garden on Walnut Street served it along with icy, briny oysters. On the other hand, Friday Saturday and Sunday, which opened in ’73, is going strong, and it still offers its famous cream of mushroom soup.

Le Bec-Fin and the Fountain in the Four Seasons Hotel are gone. But the nostalgia and the pining I have for some of the most magnificent meals I enjoyed in the ’80s are still with me. By the way, Sbraga once worked at Le Bec-Fin. 

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